Thursday, July 28, 508 Cincinnatians, including 46 children, returned home exhausted, but exhilarated. The members of nine different Cincinnati Jewish congregations were returning from an extensive 10-day tour of Israel sponsored by Cincinnati’s Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati.
The 2016 Cincinnati Congregation and Community Israel Mission included members of Conservative, Humanistic, Orthodox and Reform congregations, many of whom had never been to Israel before. More than 50 percent were in Israel for the first time.
Mission participants visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya and several locations in northern Israel. Exact itineraries varied among the congregations, but most groups visited many of the same places, albeit at different times. Very few locations or tourist attractions can accommodate 500 visitors at the same time.
Shared sites in Tel Aviv included: Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948; the Nachalat Binyamin pedestrian mall; the museum at the Rabin Center; and walking tours around the city.
Following time in Tel Aviv, all groups traveled to Netanya, the Federation’s sister city in “Partnership Together,” known informally as P2G. Netanya has been the Cincinnati Federation’s sister city since 2000. In Netanya, the congregational groups visited numerous city projects that are part of the Cincinnati Federation-Netanya partnership. A festive dinner and a concert welcoming all the visitors followed.
The next day featured a guided visit to Caesarea, one of the Land of Israel's most important cities in the Roman Period; a visit to the Herodian Theater and new excavations along the Mediterranean shore, concluding with a visit to the ruined 900-year-old Crusader town.
The mission visited Zichron Ya’acov, one of the first communities established by the early Zionist pioneers; the ancient city of Tsfat and its artists’ colony; a visit to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Kinneret);
Arriving in Jerusalem Friday afternoon, the group prepared for Shabbat, went to the Kotel to welcome the Sabbath with evening prayers and then returned to their hotels for the Sabbath dinner. On Saturday, some participants went to local synagogues, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Hebrew Union College. The afternoon featured walking tours around Jerusalem, which ended with an egalitarian prayer gathering on the plaza in front of the Kotel.
The remaining four days in Jerusalem featured walking tours of Mt. Zion and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem; visits to Jewish Agency sites in and around Jerusalem; visits to Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and a model of the ancient city of Jerusalem and the site of the Holy Temples; a visit to an Ethiopian absorption center in Mevasseret Zion; walking tours through Machaneh Yehudah, known as “the shuk,” the central Jerusalem outdoor market; and trips south to the Dead Sea and Masada.
A few of the groups took part in individual tours that had been designed for their congregations. Among these was a tour to Hebron and Gush Etzion.
The final day of the mission featured a visit to Har Herzl Military Cemetery, where soldiers who died as members of the Israel Defense Force are buried along with leaders of the state. The mission concluded with a closing program at the Haas Promenade, overlooking the entire city of Jerusalem.
At the closing program, Beth Guttman, president of the Jewish Foundation—noting that this was the largest mission ever to come to Israel from Cincinnati—emphasized that the mission would not have happened without the leadership of Cincinnati’s congregational rabbis. “The meaning of this trip is ‘connected,’” she said. “Connected with Israel, with Netanya, with each other. Five hundred strong, we connected.”
Suzette Fisher, the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation told participants that “the next step will be yours: to be more connected with your Federation and around the world. Five hundred,” she emphasized, is “an absolutely mind-boggling number…More Jews are now more connected.”
In separate interviews with The American Israelite, mission leaders conveyed their feelings about the historic mission.
“The mission exceeded all the hopes and dreams [we had] for this trip,” said Fisher. “Again, the connectedness within congregations and between, was more than we had hoped for. Congregations mixed at the community events, but also at breakfasts in the hotels and a few optional tours.”
“When the Federation came to [the Jewish Foundation] with this idea in 2014, it certainly appealed to [us] on several levels,” said Guttman. “First of all, by having congregational rabbis leading their own trips, the mission would strengthen congregations while creating real connections within their congregational communities and with their rabbis.”
“Second, we recognized that this mission would be an opportunity for many more Cincinnatians to have that real connection to Israel.”
“The idea for the mission came when those involved with Planning and Allocations at the Jewish Federation began recognizing that our highest priority for Cincinnati 2020 is more Jews more engaged,” said Fisher.
Moreover, she added, “Cincinnati has evolved from a community of mostly independent agencies and organizations to a community that collaborates continually in order to address the needs of our community.
“This was a trip for congregations and community to connect and collaborate to each other and to our Jewish identity. Once the Foundation and the Rabbis agreed, the trip quickly attracted participants. Our hope was 250, our dream was 300.....to have 508 participants was beyond imagination!”
Guttman elaborated on the role of the Jewish Foundation:
“Unquestionably, the incredible successful recruitment of participants was made possible by the tremendous amount of work done by our amazing rabbis and congregational professionals, and was strengthened by the thoughtful planning and skillful coordination of the Federation team, led by Barbara Miller.”
“We had hoped that the focus of the trip would be connectedness—between individuals and their rabbis, their fellow congregants, their fellow Cincinnatians, as well as to the people, culture and complexities of Israel. Neither the trip itself, nor its 508 participants, disappointed. Whether it was at enormous Israeli hotel breakfast buffets, on the cobblestone streets of Tsefat or the plaza of the Western Wall, Jewish Cincinnatians truly connected with each other and their rabbis. And thanks to the very special educators and speakers organized by Da'at, I truly believe the connection to Israel that we so fervently hoped for materialized.”
“The energy was palpable on the trip, especially at the three community-wide events. We recognize that to keep that connectedness and the positive community energy on track, the Federation, the Foundation and the rabbis will need to work together to continue to engage community members however they feel most comfortable—be it taking a more active role in their congregations or working in community organizations.”
“The mission was a huge success. It was incredible to see so many people connecting with Israel. More so it was amazing how many people became friends with one another, with fellow congregants and with those not in their congregations. The goal of this trip was to create connections, to allow participants the opportunity to better understand not only Israel but the importance of belonging to a diverse community that values our congregations and its rabbinic leadership,” said Shep Englander, CEO of the Jewish Federation.
“The fact that nine different congregations went together on this trip demonstrates our collective pride in our community’s diversity and celebrates the fact that there are many different ways to be Jewish,” he added.
“People connected across congregations,” said Barbara Miller, director of community building at the Federation. “There were several free evenings in Jerusalem where folks went out together for dinner regardless of what congregation they belonged to. People were excited to see their friends and make new friends whether in their congregations or not.
“The community-wide events like the Netanya celebration and the dinner on Kfar Blum certainly mixed it up,” Miller added. “Those evenings for many were the highlights of the trip. People told me they loved the sense of belonging to a bigger community. They loved sitting at dinner in Kfar Blum with people they had never met before—Reform with Conservative with Humanistic with Orthodox. That is quite beautiful, and I hope that continues at home. I think everyone felt they were part of something much, much bigger—beyond their congregation. They were a part of the Cincinnati community, the Netanya community and, of course, Israel!”
“It is our hope that mission participants give back to our community,” she said. “We want them to become more involved—whether in their congregation or in the community. We need people to volunteer. We need people to be more educated about Israel. We cannot build a strong community if people don't understand the importance of giving back, of contributing, of connecting.”
The excitement and energy of the mission was summed up by Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. Coincidentally, Silverman was in Tel Aviv July 18 when mission participants arrived. Englander invited Silverman to attend the opening dinner at the David Intercontinental Hotel.
Speaking to The Israelite in a phone interview, Silverman commented on the nature of the Cincinnati mission. “This is different, this is unique,” he said. “Synagogues empowered to build community is a beautiful idea.” Silverman walked around the dining room and schmoozed with people who were milling around the room.
“There was a feeling of a community empowered,” he added. “Cincinnati is setting a very new high standard,” he said. “This mission is building relationships, and bonds will be formed.” Silverman said he hopes to see “more interaction, more engagement between the congregations and between the synagogues and Federation” as a result of the Cincinnati Congregation and Community Israel Mission.